Yet the digitalistas who suggest those newsrooms can be readily duplicated or replaced act like willful children, unmindful that substance, craft and capacity matter in the real world, that no group of 10,000 monkeys has ever written Shakespeare, that 98 of the 100 most important pieces of public service journalism last year flowed from professionals in the newsrooms they recklessly disregard.
This is a fool’s game. It’s time for grown-ups to intervene, to end the debate and move beyond the empty calories of nostalgia and the masturbatory fantasies of a theory-based future. A long-deceased, much missed colleague often referred to people with mature judgment and a steady hand by saying, “She knows where babies come from.” Those are the folks we need on the case now.
Journalists in the main are ready now and, thank god, many are already engaged.
The future of public service journalism today rests with editors who are losing sleep trying to figure how to cover an increasingly complex world with fewer experienced reporters and shrinking budgets. It rests with reporters who found a way to learn new media techniques on their own when nobody in charge would train them. It relies on staffers whose love of the profession and devotion to the mission are more powerful than the lure of a public affairs office or law school.
Few reading this will believe it, but I know first-hand that it also depends on executives able to act with steely resolve married to correct intentions, even in the face of indictment by insinuation.
This is an ugly time that sorely tests all those decisions. Despite both the sloganeering (“Innovate your way out of this!”) and recriminations (“Greedy corporate bastards ruined our business.”) economic reality means there is relatively little to be done in the short term but optimize chances for survival. This chiefly involves the distinctly unglamorous activities of paying down debts, cutting expenses and maximizing revenues.
No matter what the mutterjarvisdoctor chorus chants on the sidelines, the hard work of ensuring tomorrow’s public service journalism is being done today in the bloody trenches of established news companies who have shouldered the burden of building a lasting foundation while sustaining a critical mass of talent and mission-driven performance. Many an important conference beckons in Dusseldorf, Davos and Dubai, no doubt, but the pain and the performance that matter today are found in Wichita, Anchorage and Miami.
And in those places, and dozens more I know directly, the right metamorphosis is underway today as newsrooms keep growing the audience for journalism rooted in tested traditions of honesty, fairness and verification and their colleagues learn to monetize it based on demographics, behavioral targeting and portfolio product mixes.
Illustration from Journalism That Matters.